Driving tour of 5 Southern Vermont general stores reveals history and quirkiness
By Telly Halkias
They have been part of the Green Mountain landscape for almost two centuries, ready to welcome a traveler in need of provisions or a local for anything from winter wear to a lug wrench. They are known as purveyors of everything from the necessary to the useless but fun, from the grassroots to the upscale.
Welcome to the general stores of Southern Vermont, also known as “country stores,” as this state is about as far into the country as a city dweller might find themselves.
Heading north on famed Vermont Scenic Route 100, the byway also known as the state’s spine, you pass through the Mount Snow area, and a bit north of that in Wardsboro, where the unmissable red and blue stripes and the huge American flag on the roof slates reveal the Wardsboro Country Store, built and operating at the same corner since 1882.
Today, along with a number of gas pumps, the simple refreshments of a cold soda or a cup of hot coffee and an array of ready-made meals that any traveler can enjoy, you also can find two things that make this rustic country store stand out.
One is a salivating specialty meats section that would rival anything you see in a big-city deli, just in a smaller package. The other, if you hit the store at the right times of the year, is that it serves as the area’s fishing/hunting licensing agent and big game weighing/documenting station.
Luxury meats in one corner, hunting licenses in another, and tagged deer in a third. And little Wardsboro makes it happen.
Moving a few miles to the north to pick up Route 30, about another 35 minutes through winding mountain forests brings you just short of the Bromley Mountain ski resort, and a quick right at the sign for Peru takes you to J.J. Hapgood General Store and Eatery.
Known in these parts for appearing in the 1987 Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard movie “Baby Boom,” as well as for Sir Paul McCartney’s apres-ski lunch visit a few years ago, in true Vermont fashion, local denizens will smile and tell you about it, but not divulge what the legendary Beatle ate or drank during his stopover in Peru.
J.J. Hapgood underwent a full update and rebuild in 2013, a renovation that brought the original 1827 provisions store into the 21st century with just about every amenity known.
People aren’t bringing their hunting kill here to be weighed, they are coming here to see and be seen, a fine blend of country and urban chic in an establishment that’s a cutting-edge source of basic provisions, dry goods, Vermont produce, meat and dairy, local cheese, charcuterie, gourmet wood-fired pizzas, prepared meals, penny candy, fine wine and beer.
And its brand new outdoor patio provides alfresco dining with beautiful views. Think of J.J Hapgood as the country store for the next 100 years.
Continuing your drive west down from the mountains and into the Vermont Valley below, the first half-hour of that next century finds not one, but two Vermont general stores, both in the picturesque hamlet of Dorset.
Passing through the outlet Mecca known as Manchester, continue the drive on Route 30 until passing the Dorset Farmer’s Market on the right.
Then just look for the H.N. Williams Store, a Dorset mainstay since 1840, and pull over to go back into time and into a realm of apparel, food, grocery, lawn, garden, hardware, and, seriously, is there anything you can’t find in the corners of this store?
Well, there is indeed: cash registers. Yep, you can use your credit card here, but you won’t find anyone ringing you up in the usual manner. Instead, those behind the point-of-sale terminals who can swipe your plastic all sport old-fashioned shoulder-strapped cash-and-change pouches.
Only in a Vermont outpost like H.N. Williams, which sells hunting gear as well as decadent sandwiches, will the proprietors proudly boast you through diagrams of an upcoming mega store renovation and expansion, all the while counting back nickels and dimes in change, the old-school way.
If that seems too quirky, you don’t have to go far for more — not even a mile, actually — heading west on Route 30. Take a quick left at the village green to find the cozy, inviting yet bright provisions mainstay, Dorset Union Store, or, as the local vernacular would have it: DUS.
The store, which looks pretty much the same from the outside as it did when it opened its doors in 1816 as a village market, went through several decades in the last century as Peltier’s, but the current owners restored the original name in 2007, and history marches on.
Like all the other stores on your trip, DUS is the hub of a small community, but also welcoming to visitors in town — and beautiful Dorset gets many, all four seasons. The store carries a little bit of everything, from necessities to frivolities. The latter, you ask? Try blue champagne, wind-up walking llamas and chocolate sardines.
Locals know the eatery for its food — made from scratch and freshly baked. Tap a few of them on the shoulder, and you’ll find that most choose not to cook, as they just pay a visit to DUS. Apparently, a festive holiday spirit exists here, no matter what time of year, though regulars know that Fridays are the day when they can come in for the famous DUS mac and cheese.
Next and final stop: backtrack to Manchester and pick up Historic Route 7A south, for yet another scenic drive, and in about 25 minutes, follow the signs to North Bennington, where you’ll learn that all such markers eventually lead you to the village green and Powers Market.
Known for the distinctive four Greek columns gracing its front porch, Powers Market was built in 1840 and claims to be the state’s “oldest operating country store,” though today your journey has shown that the term itself has a very broad definition.
Still, the store strives to live up to it, touting its staff as being 100 percent Vermonters born locally.
Here, you can find basic food and drink provisions for sale on-site — the majority locally sourced — and a bakery/cafe churning out fresh-from-scratch specialties all day, including chocolate chip cookies that customers travel across state lines from New York and Massachusetts to munch on. In fact, the Powers Market bakery also does a steady business supplying other cafes and eating establishments in the Bennington area.
As you head back to your car downing yet another cookie, one thing on this odyssey of Southern Vermont general stores becomes clear. Each in their own way is a magnet for its community: a local hangout, yet warm and welcoming to all visitors.
And just think: you can find everything from a hunting license to chocolate sardines in a realm where a former Beatle once enjoyed a meal after a good day on the slopes. That story alone is worth taking home with you. Along with the cookies, if they make it that far.
If you go…
Dorset Union Store
31 Church St., Dorset, Vt.
H.N. Williams Store
2732 VT Route 30, Dorset, Vt.
J.J. Hapgood General Store and Eatery
305 Main St., Peru, Vt.
9 Main St., North Bennington, Vt.
Wardsboro Country Store
23 Main St., Wardsboro, Vt.
Telly Halkias is a national award-winning, independent journalist. He lives and writes from his homes in Southern Vermont and coastal Maine.